Comfort soup

I remember the exact time my love affair with kimchi began. I’d just written a 3-hour exam, all essay questions, and I was ravenous. But on a Sunday afternoon in downtown Vancouver, there wasn’t much choice. Finally I wandered into a Korean internet café that also served some hot dishes. I ordered the bulgogi plate which was served with the ubiquitous small dish of spicy fermented cabbage. You know how when you’re really hungry, anything you eat tastes delicious? I’d had kimchi before, but it had left me cold. Now, I was in love.

Soon after, I moved in with a Japanese friend who also loves kimchi. One cold night, she boiled up a soup pot, adding almost an entire jar of kimchi to the hot water, along with thinly sliced pork.  Sharing that soup with her at her kitchen table is still one of my favourite food memories.

My mom is partial to a Korean tofu soup, so when I found a recipe for Spicy Kimchi Tofu Stew, I knew I had to make it to welcome her home from her Christmas trip to Vancouver. For me, a steaming bowl of this red-gold soup is satisfying, comforting, and evocative of many good memories—the very best kind of food.

Spicy Kimchi Tofu Soup
Adapted from Bon Appetit

1 16-oz. package silken tofu, cut into 1” pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 cups cabbage kimchi, drained and chopped (reserve the liquid)
2 tablespoons gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste)
12 pieces thinly sliced pork
8 green onions, cut into 1” pieces (finely chop a handful of them and aside for garnishing)
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Reduce heat and carefully add the tofu. Simmer gently until slightly puffed and firmed up, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tofu to a medium bowl and set aside.

Empty the pot and put it back on medium-high heat. Heat the vegetable oil. Add  the kimchi and gochujang and cook, stirring often, until beginning to brown, 5–8 minutes. Add the kimchi liquid and 8 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until kimchi is softened and translucent, 35–40 minutes.

Add the pork, scallions, soy sauce, and tofu; simmer gently until tofu has absorbed flavors, 15-20 minutes. Don’t worry if the tofu falls apart a little. Add the sesame oil and season with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with sesame seeds and remaining green onions.

Serves 6 as a first course.

New flavours on one of North America’s oldest streets

On the brunch menu: lechon kawali with coconut waffles
On the brunch menu: lechon kawali with coconut waffles

I was overjoyed when, in the middle of a chat about Asian cuisine, the Indonesian waiter at one of my favourite restaurants, Gado-Gado, told me that there was a new Filipino restaurant on rue Notre Dame, just a couple of blocks from where I live.

But I have to admit it was a little surreal at first to eat at Junior.

First of all, most of the clientele are non-Pinoy. Second, being typical Montrealers, they insist on having wine with their pork adobo. Third, many of the servers are non-Pinoy as well, and they love explaining the menu to me and giving me their recommendations.

But owner Jojo Flores is deservedly proud of his friendly, diligent staff, and of the carefully selected wines on the menu. Montreal diners are rather spoiled for choice, and they have selective palettes. Flores says Junior stands out as the only Filipino restaurant downtown. Dishes are rotated in and out of the menu every season. They have also introduced weekend brunches and taco Wednesdays.

Flores, who opened Junior with his brother Toddy in October 2014, is also proud to note that many of the people who eat at the restaurant are non-Filipino. “It’s really cool to see people enjoying the cuisine we grew up eating at home.”

I have to agree with him on that — it is pretty cool to see Filipino food finally becoming internationally known.

My own personal favourites are the crisp-tender lechon kawali and the sisig, which has just the right amount of chili heat and arrives on a sizzling cast-iron plate with the barest drizzle of mayonnaise. Both are perfect with a glass of ice-cold, locally brewed Jeepney beer.

From the “Rice and Shine” menu I almost always choose the lightly crunchy coconut waffles along with the —you guessed it—lechon kawali. (You can also order it with battered fried chicken.) And they do an excellent flat white.

Last but not least, there is the lively yet relaxed ambience, which Flores says is really “a reflection of who we are, and our appreciation for good food and great music.” Come down to Junior any day of the week, and chances are the place will be buzzing.

If you ask me, the Flores brothers have hit on a winning combination.

Sugar shacking

When I was about eight years old, my grandparents came back to Manila from Vancouver for Christmas, and they gave me the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder as a present. I loved them — partly because they had such good eating in them, and also because they described daily life in a mileu that was totally unfamiliar and completely fascinating.

I remember especially vividly the story of sugaring off in Little House in the Big Woods…how Laura’s grandpa whittled and hammered little troughs into the trunks of maple trees to collect their sap, and how he would boil the sap in a big iron kettle hung between two trees to make the maple sugar. One year, there was a “sugar snow,” a last cold snap that caused an extra-long run of sap, so that there was enough for Laura’s grandparents to throw a party, with music and dancing and “hot hasty pudding with maple syrup for supper,” and best of all, maple candy that was made by pouring the hot syrup onto pans of snow.

Well, this may not be the Big Woods of Wisconsin, but Québec has its own maple syrup traditions. During my first visit to a cabane de sucre (sugar shack) I was delighted to see the sugaring-off story come alive in front of my very eyes.

These pictures were taken at La Sucrerie de la Montagne, which I am told is by far the best sugar shack in the region. They have an excellent, all-you-can-eat menu of traditional Québecois cuisine, a boulangerie with an enormous wood-burning oven where they bake all their bread, and all-season accommodations so that you can come and enjoy the surrounding woods. Sugaring-off season starts in February and will continue until April.

Recipes and other food-related writing =>